Paris (AFP) – Four Frenchmen held captive for three years by an Al-Qaeda offshoot in North Africa flew home to their families on Wednesday, as sources said at least 20 million euros had been paid in ransom.
The four men, who were kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Niger in 2010, flew into the Villacoublay military airport near Paris, where they were met by their families and President Francois Hollande.
A source close to the Nigerien negotiating team that secured the hostages’ release told AFP Wednesday that, despite French assurances to the contrary, a ransom had been paid.
“Between 20 and 25 million euros was paid to obtain the release of the French hostages,” the source said, adding that the money included payments to the hostage-takers and intermediaries.
Newspaper Le Monde also quoted a French source close to the negotiations as saying more than 20 million euros ($28 million) had been paid for their release.
The French government has denied paying any ransom, with Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian insisting on Wednesday: “France has had the same policy for three years. We do not pay.”
The four ex-hostages had left Niger on a government plane earlier Wednesday.
They appeared relaxed and had shaved or trimmed the thick beards they were wearing when they were released.
The four men appeared thin but otherwise in good health, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
Hollande had announced their release on Tuesday, after what he called “three years of suffering for the families who lived through a nightmare”.
Hollande thanked Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou for helping to secure the release of the four men.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who flew back with the hostages, told AFP before takeoff that the men had been freed in neighbouring Mali, and were in “very good shape”.
“They have been hostages for three years and the nightmare is finally over,” he said.
In a brief remark to AFP at the airport in Niger, one of the hostages, Thierry Dol, 32, said: “It was very difficult but it was the test of a lifetime.”
Francoise Larribe, who was kidnapped along with her husband Daniel before she was freed in February 2011, said on learning of her husband’s release: “It’s an emotional wave, a tsunami.”